Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).

Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

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200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

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The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

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Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

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The Monastery

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Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

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George Ellery Hale

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Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

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Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

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That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

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What to do near New Orleans

Continued from previous post: What to do in New Orleans

After a few days in the city, we picked up a car and headed out of New Orleans. The first thing I insisted we do is drive across the longest bridge over water in the world: the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway – at 24 miles long. Once on the bridge, it wasn’t long before we could see only road and water. The geek in me thought this was great.

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After crossing we were then on the wrong side of the lake, so we drove north, west then south and ended up all the way back around at Peavine Road. We had lunch at Frenier Landing. The deserted restaurant was decorated with creepy looking stuffed animals and had boat propellers for ceiling fans. A quick bowl of gumbo later we drove to our next stop.

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We crossed the river at the impressive Veterans Memorial Bridge and went into the Whitney Plantation for the late afternoon tour.

At the Whitney Plantation we were greeted by our guide, Ali. Ali gave a passionate and fascinating history of the slavery in the US and the work that went on at this plantation. He showed us the plantation church, the cabins, the jail, the kitchen and the ‘big house’.  The big house was large, functional, and painted to resemble marble, as was apparently high fashion at the time. The double row of trees leading from the river to the front of the house acted as an air conditioner for the house, and the floor of the ground level was tiled, to better allow floodwaters to escape. In stark contrast, the slave cabins were small, hot and sparse.

The tour was a sobering experience, and at the end, when describing how slavery was ended through the efforts of those who had nothing, Ali told us what he tells school kids that visit: “not attempting to achieve your dreams is just laziness.”

That evening we stayed at the excellent Holiday Inn Express at LaPlace, and went to the Crab Trap Restaurant for dinner where we had the obligatory boiled crawfish. We ordered about twice as much as should have, and we needed a lesson from the waitress on how to, er, deal with the crawfish. Quite a long time later, and in need of several bandages from the sharp bits of shell, we were finished. It was delicious.

The next morning, we drove the few minutes up the road to Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. We boarded the boat, and for the next two hours our guide did not draw breath as we motored through the beautiful swamp. His monologue was uninterrupted as he threw marshmallows to the crocodiles in the water and to the raccoon family on the land. The turtles were not interested in marshmallows and remained perched on their fallen logs. At one point the guide pulled out a baby crocodile from a tank hidden at the back of the boat, taped its jaw shut (“regulations”) and passed it around the 40 people on board. I got the impression it was less than impressed with the experience, but everyone on board, including us, was.

Then we disembarked, and that was the end of our trip to Louisiana. We had a fantastic time in and around New Orleans. I highly recommend you visit too!

Check out: New Orleans: food city

What to do in New Orleans

What to do in New Orleans

This was our first trip to New Orleans and during the few days we had in the city we tried to visit every single place we were recommended.

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We went across the river on the $2 ferry to Algiers. The variety of house decoration in this neighborhood was staggering: they were all colors of the rainbow, all were festooned with plants and flowers, and many had intricate woodwork. It was only after we got back we learned that Algiers has a very high crime rate.

We went up to the City Park on the tram with wooden seats and windows you could lean your whole torso out of if you chose. At the gardens, Spanish moss coated all the trees and homeless people were camped in the bushes.

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We took the tram to the Garden District and used a self-guided walking tour I found on the internet to explore the area. The tour was quite interesting but one got the impression most of the information was made up. The cemetery and the architecture in this area were fascinating. We saw beads in the trees.

We also went to the French Market for the random stalls and walked along Frenchmen Street one evening to hear loud jazz overlapping from multiple venues.

As a closet geography geek I was interested to see the city’s flood defenses up close. We found out how to get to the walkways on top of the levees (i.e. scramble up them) and saw the city and the Mississippi river from a different perspective. From here we saw houses and industry to our left, and to our right, the river and giant tanker ships. The river seemed like the focus of the city, yet somehow peripheral to it.

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Walking the streets of the French Quarter (Vieux Carré) in the relatively early morning was a contrast to the loud and crowded night-time experience. In daylight we were greeted by delivery trucks jamming the road. Men with hand carts were pushing boxes of vegetables to their destinations, and the ground was wet from owners hosing down the sidewalk from the previous night’s excess.

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The freight trains are a feature of downtown New Orleans too. We heard the horn every evening, but thought it was a ship. Then as we were heading to the Hilton’s Dragos for charbroiled oysters, and we saw a massive train trundle past.

Next post: What to do near New Orleans. We took a car to visit a plantation and a swamp.

Previous post / New Orleans: food city

Next post / What to do near New Orleans

 

New Orleans: food city

New Orleans is unlike any US city I’ve ever visited. It feels European, with its narrow streets and tall balconied buildings. Mum and I were there in May and the weather absolutely perfect: sunny every day, not too hot, and mild evenings. We stayed in the Omni Royal Crescent hotel near the French Quarter, but far enough away from the noise. It was a very easy and cheap to get around on the trams, and it was, of course, very easy to find places to eat. Which brings me to the first topic of this three-part post: FOOD!

New Orleans School of Cooking

After reviewing TripAdvisor and other places, we decided that going to watch a cooking demonstration would be a Good Thing to do. So on our first morning we turned up at the New Orleans School of Cooking for their Daily Open Demonstration Class. The room was packed and the class sat with rapt attention as instructor Pat described the foundation of New Orleans, and how the coming and going of the French and the Spanish informed the cuisine that the city is famous for.

The $32.50 fee was worth it just to listen to this history lesson, but then we got to watch Pat cook four dishes: gumbo, jambalaya, bananas foster and pralines. Then we got to eat it all and wash it down with the local Abita beer. We were given the recipes, and told if we cooked one of the dishes at home we could send off for a certificate. I bought some of the local spice “Joe’s Stuff” and cooked gumbo when we got back to Pasadena – and duly received my certificate!

And the rest

After the cooking class, and based on all the recommendations we received, we had a big list of other food we needed to try, including boiled crawfish, po’boys,  grilled oysters, and of course, beignets and chicory coffee at Café Du Monde. And naturally, each evening, we had to try a new cocktail – the more imaginative name the better (Gator Juice anyone?). Brennan‘s was the stand-out place for cocktail hour, thanks to its calm back courtyard and attentive service.

Next post: What to do in New Orleans